The Secret Question for Business Growth: Why?

Go Ahead, Ask Why

Accept or Understand?

Five-year-olds intuitively know something that most of us have forgotten. The key to understanding almost anything is hidden behind a simple three letter word. WHY.

Rather than simply accepting what they’re told, a common response from an inquisitive kid is, “Why?”

Unfortunately, as we get older we often assume that asking why is no longer relevant. After all, we know stuff. We have MBAs and extensive experience to guide us.

Good business leaders are trained to be decisive, quickly assessing the situation at hand and making rapid judgements about the right course of action. When they know what they want, they come to me…

“We need to improve social media engagement.”

“I think I should rebrand.”

“I don’t think we’re growing fast enough.”

Those who haven’t worked with me before are probably expecting a response like, “Okay, what’s your budget?” or “Great, let’s get started!” That’s precisely the wrong response.

Instead, the first thing I ask is, “Why?”

Why Ask Why?

Asking “Why?” forces people to think more deeply about the problem at hand.

  • Why do you think you need better social media engagement?
  • Does that mean that you have an issue with connecting with customers and prospects?
  • If you have an issue connecting with customers and prospects, why might that be?

Perhaps your value proposition doesn’t really resonate with your target audience, or there’s an issue with customer service that’s turning people off, or your brand is not approachable enough. Problems like this aren’t simply online, they’re pervasive. Social media alone won’t fix them.

What’s Under the Surface?

Digging deeper to get to the “fundamental why” exposes the real problem that needs to be addressed.

Take the example of an arbitrary growth target. Maybe your business grew by 12% last year, so you’ve decided that 15% would look pretty good on the scorecard this year.


Do you know that your peer companies are growing at 15%? Maybe the industry norm is only 10%. What if your business has an outstanding on opportunity to leapfrog the competition? Perhaps you should aim for 20 or 25%.

Suppose that 15% is an arbitrary number. To define the right target, we need to look at why your business is where it is today:

  • Are underlying issues with employee retention creating turmoil and disrupting to project schedules?
  • Is a competitor undercutting your prices and stealing your clients, forcing you to double down and work harder?
  • Are you trying, unsuccessfully, to squeeze growth out of a dying product?
  • Would you be better served to accept slower growth while investing in new technologies or innovations?

You don’t know if you don’t ask.

The Million Dollar Question

I have a challenge for you. Take a moment to think about the project that’s the highest priority for you right now.

This essential, get it done now, make it happen at all costs effort may be a directive from the board or something that you included in your strategic plan. Maybe it’s a project delegated by the boss or something that must happen to keep a key customer happy.

Whatever it is, it’s vitally important, right?

Now ask the million dollar question: Why?

  • Why does it matter to the business?
  • Why is it a priority today?
  • Why is it more important than all the other projects on your desk?
  • Why this project at all?
  • Why not something else?

If you see a pattern in your answers and you’re suddenly not so confident that this is the right thing to work on, ask some more whys.

Why do we think this project will solve that problem? (Whatever the problem is.)

Why not address an issue that’s a little closer to the source?

As you go through this exercise you might be surprised to discover sacred areas in your organization that people dare not touch. Assumptions that go unchallenged. Status quo, undisrupted.

Create the “Why?” Habit

When you dig deeper you’ll see how growth and change can become a little uncomfortable at times. It’s certainly easier to jump to an arbitrary conclusion or create a random target, and then marshal all the forces at hand to achieve it.

Doing something rather than just ruminating feels good. It’s active, not analysis paralysis. It can also be a trap.

Does quick action based on assumptions create the forward momentum your business requires?

Probably not. It’s too comfortable, and comfort is dangerous.

To unlock exponential growth, make asking “Why?” a habit. Doing so will stretch your team, help you better understand your customers and enhance your ability to innovate.

Ask, then ask again. Eventually, you’ll discover the seeds of real change.

Photo by Bob Smith.

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